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By Mike Power Wed Dec 21, 7:04 PM ET
PANAMA CITY, Panama (Reuters) – A plan by Panama and Colombia to link power grids through a remote jungle is worrying environmentalists and indigenous groups, who fear it would benefit rebels, loggers and a flesh-eating parasite.
In a summit last week in Mexico, leaders from Central America and Colombia agreed to an energy integration project to help reduce dependency on oil imports.
That includes linking up power grids from Mexico to Colombia via Panama’s Darien Gap, where Central and South America meet.
Colombia and Panama’s leaders have agreed to look at building a transmission line through the dense Darien jungle and will decide in 2006 whether to go ahead and which route to take.
Environmentalists warn the project will require cutting a path of at least 130 feet wide through virgin rainforest, allowing people and diseases to enter and pass through one of the world’s most unspoiled wildernesses.
The Darien Gap hosts more than 900 different mammals and birds, including endangered species such as the spectacled bear and puma, along with over 2,000 plant species.
Environmental engineer Scott Muller, co-author of a U.N. ecosystem assessment on the neighboring Kuna Yala region, says the plans are a time bomb.
“Once there is access, deforestation will explode,” he said.
Isaac Castillo, general manager of Panama’s electrical transmission company ETESA, denies damage will be substantial.
“All human activity has an impact on the environment,” he said. “We will take steps to mitigate them in some cases and avoid them in others.”
The Darien Gap marks the only break in the road linking Alaska with Argentina and acts as a bio-barrier for diseases such as foot-and-mouth, which is absent north of Colombia.
Screw worm, a parasite that eats the living flesh of humans and animals, is controlled by a U.S.-funded program throughout the continent and the Caribbean. Disturbing the ecosystem could help it spread northward, say environmentalists.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that if screw worm were to infest the United Stated today, losses to the livestock industry would be over $900 million. Losses due to foot-and-mouth disease would be much greater.
Some of the power lines’ routes skirt Panama’s Kuna Yala, an indigenous sovereign homeland ruled by Kuna Indians, which has seen spillover from the rebel conflict next door in Colombia.
Irik Limnio of the Kuna Congress, a legislative body in Panama City representing 50,000 Kuna, says the energy project is unwelcome.
“The Kuna depend on the land – the area is our territory, we take medicinal plants and hunt there. And there is a fear of paramilitaries and guerillas, above all on the border. We have already experienced guerrilla and paramilitary incursions.”